Samhain: The Celtic Origin of Halloween
Halloween or All Hallows' Eve
This is the time of the year for celebrating Halloween. Ghosts, goblins, jack-o-lanterns, witches, bonfires, haunted houses, costumes, trick-or-treating—all these customs and traditions we use in celebration of Halloween today reach back in history to the Celtics of England, Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Brittany, France. Halloween is much more than just costumes and candy, as it has a rich and interesting history.
The Celtics (more than 2,000 years ago) celebrated their new year on November 1 and celebrated it with the festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). This day was the most important in their calendar because it marked the end of summer and the fall harvest and the beginning of winter—a new year in their calendar.
Because it signaled the beginning of the cold, dark winter, it became a time of the year associated with death.
The Celts believed that on the night before the new year (All Hallows' Eve) the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and the otherworldly spirits could cross over into the real world.
Therefore, when they celebrated on October 31, on the eve of their new year, they believed ghosts of the dead returned to earth. Supernatural entities, for example, fairies and witches, became associated with Samhain. To combat the ghosts that appeared and pulled pranks on them, the Celts began using humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.
Celts also believed that ghosts made it easier for the Druids, Celtic priests, poets, scientists and scholars all rolled into one, to make predictions about the future. These prophecies offered an important source of comfort and direction in a dangerous and volatile Celtic world during the long, dark winter.
To make sacrifices to the Celtic deities, Druids built huge sacred bonfires where people gathered to burn crops and animals. During this celebration, Celts wore costumes of animal heads and skins.
They also attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When this celebration ended they re-lit their hearth fires at home from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the autumn and coming winter.
One concept to note is that although Samhain is a pagan holiday, the celebration of it was not satanic. The ancient Celts did not worship anything resembling the Christian devil and had no concept of it.
It was the Catholic Church that came up with the concept of the devil and began persecuting so-called witches in its search to blot out Satan.
The Roman Influence
By 43AD the Roman empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory in the UK and parts of Ireland. For 400 years they ruled the Celtic lands. Of course, they would influence the Celtic Samhain celebration.
First, was Feralia, a day in late October when Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second, was the commemoration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The apple was the symbol of Pomona so this fruit was incorporated into the celebration of Samhain. This is where, today, we get the tradition of "bobbing for apples," we practice to celebrate Halloween.
In keeping with the Celtic tradition of the ghosts of the dead returning on Samhain, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome on May 13, 609 AD, in honor of all Christian martyrs and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs' Day was established in the western Roman Catholic church.
Then, Pope Gregory (731-741) expanded this festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs and moved the observance from May 13 to November 1.
By the 9th century, the Christian influence had spread to Celtic lands where it gradually blended with older Celtic rights and religious beliefs, and that of Samhain.
In 1000 AD the Roman Catholic church would make November 2, All Souls' Day,a day to honor the dead. The church was trying to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a church sanctioned holiday.
Therefore, today we celebrate on the Roman Catholic western calendar, All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on November 2.
All Souls' Day was celebrated like Samhain with big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. In Mexico, for example, this day is known as El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead.
The word Halloween dates back to about 1745 in Scotland. It became known as a hallowed evening or holy evening. It comes from the Scottish term for All Hallows' Eve, the evening before All Hallows' Day. The Scottish word "eve" means even and this contracted to e'en or een and so over time All Hallows' E(v)en evolved to Halloween.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving
This beloved American short story, from Irvings', The Sketch Book, is a favorite to be read at Halloween time. It was actually written in England in 1820 when Irving was travelling there. It has had an enduring popularity during the Halloween time throughout all these years and several movies have been made based on this story.
Irving's story is set in 1790, in the Dutch settlement of Sleepy Hollow, New York, which was popular at the time for its ghosts and haunting atmosphere that pervaded the imagination of its inhabitants.
The main characters are Icabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. Icabod disappears from Sleepy Hollow on Halloween and is,believed to have been captured by the Headless Horseman and never again to be seen.
Halloween in the American Colonies
Halloween came to the American colonies via the English, Scottish and Irish as they settled into the new colonies. In America, Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the strict Protestant belief system there. The Puritans and Pilgrims did not believe in parties, dancing or celebrating holidays, so Halloween became more common in the colony of Maryland and those colonies in the south.
As different European ethnic groups came to America as well as traditions of the Native Americans, Halloween traditions blended and a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.
"Play parties" at Halloween time were public events held to celebrate the harvest where neighbors would share stories of the dead and tell each others' fortunes as well as dance and sing.
Colonial Halloween celebrations also featured telling ghost stories as well as mischief making of all kinds.
By the mid-19th century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
By the late 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants, especially the Irish who had great Halloween traditions. Taking from the English and Irish, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money which eventually became the tradition of today's "trick or treating."
The tradition of carving a jack-o-lantern dates back to the Irish tradition.
During this time of celebration many young women believed they could hope for and determine who they would marry. Many of these traditions began in Ireland and throughout the UK.
In 18th century Ireland,for example, a cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it.
In Scotland, fortune tellers recommended that single young women name a hazelnut for each of their suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding represented the girl's future husband.
The opposite was also believed: The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last.
Young women also tossed apple peels over their shoulders hoping the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husband's initials. They also tried to learn their futures by peering at egg yolks in a bowl of water.
Also at this time there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about local communities and neighborly get-together's that focused on ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft.
At the turn of the 20th century, Halloween parties were for both children and adults and became the most popular way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes.
Parents were encouraged by local leaders and newspapers to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween celebrations because of the children. Therefore, Halloween lost most of its superstitions and religious overtones by the beginning of the 20th century.
During the 1920's and 30's, Halloween became a secular but local community centered holiday with parades and town-wide parties. From this time on to the 1960's the centuries old practice of trick or treating was revived and it became an inexpensive way for a community to share in a Halloween celebration. This is when Halloween became mostly a children's holiday.
Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween. It has become the largest commercial holiday second only to Christmas.
Trick or treating as we know it today actually dates back to early All Souls' Day parades in England. Poor people would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for families' dead relatives.
This was encouraged by the Church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food for roaming ghosts and spirits.
The practice became known as "going a souling" and was eventually taken up by children who would visit houses and be given ale, food, and money.
The tradition of dressing for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. On Halloween when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought they would encounter ghosts if they left their home.
To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks outside after dark so the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.
To keep ghosts away from their homes, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter the house.
Trick or treating that we take part in today, mostly for children dressed up in costumes and and seeking candy, has become a relatively recent tradition. Pranks, such as soaping windows, have been part of Halloween traditions and well established.
Halloween has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic and superstition. The Celts, to encourage friendly spirits and ghosts to visit, would set places at the dinner table for them and leave treats on doorsteps and along the road and lit candles to let the ghosts of loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.
Halloween ghosts today are fearsome and malevolent and superstitions scarier. That is because these customs come from medieval days not the Celtic days.
During the middle ages, many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats. We don't walk under ladders and avoid breaking mirrors or stepping on the cracks in the road, and these superstitions began during the Halloween time in the middle ages.
Today, Halloween celebrations are transforming once again. It is becoming again an adult holiday as well as for children. Many adults are masquerading, like mardi Gras, in American large cities. Elaborate Halloween decorations are on display in front yards and are second only to Christmas displays here in America.
Haunted houses and haunted cornfield mazes have become a popular way to experience Halloween for kids and adults of all ages. Halloween has grown again to be a popular seasonal celebration not to miss. And don't forget the horror and "slasher" movies that are so popular to be seen during the Halloween time.
Superstitious Beliefs About Halloween
Over the centuries Halloween superstitious beliefs have been passed down. Here are just a few of them:
- Burning a candle inside a jack-o-lantern on Halloween keeps evil spirits and demons away.
- If the candle suddenly goes out in a jack-o-lantern, it is believed a ghost has come to call.
- Always burn new candles on Halloween for best of luck and do not burn Halloween candles at any other time of the year. It brings bad luck or strange explainable things will happen to you.
- Gazing into a flame of a Halloween candle will enable you to peer into the future.
- Girls who carry a lamp to a spring of water on Halloween can see their future husband in the reflection.
- It is good luck to burn an orange colored candle on Halloween.
- If you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night, do not turn around because it may be Death itself. If you look Death in the eye it will hasten your demise,.
- Christians believe that cats are linked with bad luck, especially black cats.
- Crossing paths with a black cat on Halloween is a sign of a witch nearby. Cats are witches' familiars which means witches can turn themselves into black cats.
- Hold your breath when you pass a cemetery so evil spirits cannot enter your body.
- When passing a cemetery, turn your pockets inside out to make sure you don't bring home ghosts in your pockets.
- If you see a ghost, walk around it nine times and it will disappear.
- Children born on Halloween are believed to have the gift of second sight and the power to ward off evil spirits.
- If you see a spider on Halloween night, it means the spirit of the dead one is watching you.
- Ringing bells on Halloween will chase away evil spirits.
- Walk around your house three times backwards and three times counterclockwise before sunset on Halloween to ward off evil spirits.
- Put your clothes on inside out and walk backwards on Halloween night to meet a witch.